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Fine-scale acoustic and movement behaviour of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Cardigan Bay, Wales

Project Description

The bottlenose dolphin is a qualifying feature of three Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) in the UK, two of which are in Cardigan Bay, Wales. SACs are Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) designated under the European Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC). The bottlenose dolphin is also a European Protected Species under the same Directive and is afforded strict protection in European waters. Although the population of bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan Bay are thought to be stable over the long-term, recent monitoring suggests a decline over the last decade -the reasons for this remain unclear [1]. It is possible that bottlenose dolphins are moving outside of the Cardigan BaySACs, an aspect that requires further investigation. The importance of understanding within-population and within-area differences in habitat use cannot be over-stated, since coastal bottlenose dolphins have a propensity to adapt rapidly to local habitats but also marked individual variation in ranging and habitat use. This has implications for conservation and management that may necessitate the development of wider-or indeed more habitat-specific conservation measures within and outside of current SAC designations.

The aim of this project is to significantly advance our knowledge of how individual dolphins use habitats found in Cardigan Bay and Pen Llyn a’r Sarnau SACs in Cardigan Bay, Wales. The project will utilise acoustic monitoring techniques such as towed arrays and fixed-bottom acoustic recorders with detailed systematic behavioural observation to determine the fine-scale characteristics of how individuals within the broader population interact, range, use habitat and how these behaviours fluctuate temporally. For example, this project will quantify individual dolphin habitat preferences and movement patterns using acoustic signatures of dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins are well known for their individualised identity signals, or signature whistles [2]. Signature whistles are stable over time and can, therefore, be used as individual markers in conservation tools [3,4]. This project will use acoustic monitoring and the signature identification method [3]to explore habitat use and ranging patterns of specific individuals in Cardigan Bay.

This project also offers an opportunity for long-term monitoring of cetacean vocalisations and underwater, ambient noise levels in the Cardigan Bay SACs, with important implications for conservation. We will explore how habitat types vary in ambient noise levels and how this may influence dolphin visitation rates. Data from the broadband recorders will be made available for wider initiatives such as UK’s reporting on the underwater noise descriptor for the Marine Strategy Framework Directive [5]. Ultimately,the results of this project will shed important light on individual dolphin ranging patterns, as well as identifying critical areas of use [6], thus supporting long-term management of the bottlenose dolphins that inhabit the Cardigan Bay SACs.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ DTP competition funded project . Fees, stipend and research costs are covered for UK students & residents for 3.5 years.

We seek a motivated student with a marine science, conservation or behavioural ecology background. Knowledge of bioacoustics and/or small boat handling skills would be advantageous.

This is an industrial CASE award. Time is spent during the 3.5-year studentship at the CASE partner, Natural Resources Wales. Up to 4 months per year will be spent at the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre in Wales for fieldwork. The remainder of the time is spent at the University of Bristol.


1. Lohrengel K, Evans PGH, Lindenbaum CP, Morris CW, Stringell TB. 2018 Bottlenose Dolphin Monitoring in Cardigan Bay 2014-2016. Natural Resources Wales, Bangor.

2. Caldwell MC, Caldwell DK, Tyack PL. 1990 Review of the signature whistle hypothesis for the Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin. In The Bottlenose Dolphin(eds S Leatherwood, R Reeves), pp. 199–234. New York: Academic Press

3. Janik VM, King SL, Sayigh LS, Wells RS. 2013 Identifying signature whistles from recordings of groups of unrestrained bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Mar. Mammal Sci.29, 109–122.

4. Terry AMR, Mcgregor PK. 2002 Census and monitoring based on individually identifiable vocalizations: the role of neural networks. Anim. Conserv.5, 103–111.

5. Merchant ND, Brookes KL, Faulkner RC, Bicknell AWJ, Godley BJ, Witt MJ. 2016 Underwater noise levelsin UK waters. Sci. Rep.6, 1–10.

6. Riera A, Pilkington J, Ford J, Stredulinsky E, Chapman R. 2019 Passive acoustic monitoring off Vancouver Island reveals extensive use by at-risk Resident killer whale (Orcinus orca) populations. Endang Species Res39, 221–234.

How good is research at University of Bristol in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 64.60

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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